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People of all backgrounds and beliefs can experience addiction. It can be hard to understand why some people are more prone to it than others. Regardless of your upbringing or moral code, many factors can raise your risk of becoming addicted to alcohol and other drugs. Your genetics, environment, medical history, and age all play a role. Certain types of drugs, and methods of using them, are also more addictive than others.
Addiction isn’t a matter of weak willpower or lack of morals. The chemical reactions that happen in your brain when you have an addiction are quite different than those that happen in someone without one. That explains why one person may be able to smoke cigarettes every so often for pleasure, while another needs them on a daily basis to function.
Heredity is a major risk factor for addiction. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, up to half of your risk of addiction to alcohol, nicotine, or other drugs is based on genetics. If you have family members who’ve experienced addiction, you’re more likely to experience it too.
If you have an "addictive personality," you may be at risk of a wide range of addictions. For example, if you have an alcoholic parent, you might choose not to drink but still become addicted to smoking or gambling.
Environmental factors can also raise your risk of addiction. For children and teens, lack of parental involvement can lead to greater risk-taking or experimentation with alcohol and other drugs. Young people who experience abuse or neglect from parents may also use drugs or alcohol to cope with their emotions.
Peer pressure is another risk factor for addiction, especially among young people. Even when it’s not overt or aggressive, pressure from friends to fit in can create an environment of "experimentation" with substances that can lead to addiction. The availability of a substance in your social group can also affect your risk of becoming addicted. For example, large amounts of alcohol are available in many social settings that are popular among college students.
If you’re trying to recover from an addiction, you may need to avoid environmental triggers, including some activities, settings, or people. For example, you may need to avoid the people that you previously used drugs with. You may experience cravings in certain social circles and situations, raising your risk of relapse. This might be the case even after a long period of sobriety.
In the medical community, you have a "dual diagnosis" if you have both an addictive disorder and another mental health condition, such as depression. Underlying mental health issues can increase your risk of addiction. In turn, an addiction can increase the severity of other mental health conditions. This creates a vicious cycle in which your addiction tends to progress quickly and with severe consequences. You may feel like alcohol or drugs decrease your depression symptoms for a short period of time. But in the long run, addiction will likely make things worse.
Other medical conditions can also increase your risk of addiction. For example, if you take prescription pain pills after a surgery, you may be at risk of addiction. An injury or illness may also change your lifestyle in ways that encourage you to use drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism. Your doctor can help you develop better strategies to cope with changes in your health and lifestyle.
Another risk factor for addiction is the age at which you begin the behavior. A survey conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that young adults between the age of 18 and 24 were most likely to have both alcohol use disorders and other drug addictions. Addictive behavior when you’re young can also impact your brain development, making you more prone to mental health disorders as you get older and your addiction progresses.
While some addictions progress slowly over the course of several months or years, others move more quickly. The object of your addiction can play a role.
Drugs such as cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines tend to be more physically addictive than alcohol or marijuana. If you use cocaine or heroin, the withdrawal or "comedown" phase tends to be physically painful. This may push you to use them more often and in higher doses to prevent the withdrawal symptoms. This can speed up the process of addiction and raise your risk of serious complications, including overdose.
Just as certain drugs may be more addictive than others, your method of using drugs can also increase your risk of addiction. Drugs that are smoked or injected into your body tend to be more addictive than those that you swallow. When you smoke or inject drugs, they go straight into your bloodstream and brain, rather than passing through your liver and other organs where they’re filtered first.
Even if you have many risks factors for addiction, you can combat or avoid it. Risk factors can increase your chance of becoming addicted, but they don’t guarantee that you’ll experience addiction.
If you have a lot of risk factors for addiction, talk to your doctor. They can help you learn more about addiction, your risk of developing it, and strategies to avoid it. They may recommend abstinence and suggest that you avoid drinking alcohol, using drugs, or practicing other addictive behaviors.
If you suspect you have an addiction, ask your doctor for help. They may recommend counseling, medications, or other treatment options. It’s possible to recover from an addiction and lead a healthy life.
Written by: Mara Tyler
Medically reviewed on: Jun 16, 2016: Timothy J. Legg, PhD, CRNP
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